The Laynor Foundation Museum

The Ghost Army of World War II
by William W. Phillips
May, 1996


The following essay should be read in conjunction with viewing the World War II art of Harold A. Laynor on display in this museum.

The essay endeavors to put a special group of American fighting men, the little known "Ghost Army of World War II," into historical perspective. Harold Laynor was one of those troops. He realized as a pre teen that he wanted to be an artist, and he took to its study by his high school years. He graduated from the Parsons School of Design in New York City and was awarded a year of art study in Paris. But WWII interrupted his plans and in 1942 he enlisted in the United States Army. He was twenty. He did not get to Paris that year, but he did get to France right after D Day and served on or near the front lines until Germany fell in May, 1945. The Ghost Army is not only little known, it is also unique in the history of American warfare in that it was a battlefront battalion composed largely of artists, sculptors, architects, literary figures and others from the arts and humanities. Many of the new recruits were already famous; others would win celebrity stripes after the war. They included Olin Dows, a prominent artist and personal friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; Bill Blass, a fashion designer of worldwide acclaim; Elsworth Kelly, whose paintings hang in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan; George Diestel, a Hollywood set designer; Art Kane, a fashion photographer; and Harold A. Laynor, whose works show in galleries all around the country, including the Museum of Modern Art, and whose many distinctions include the prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Award.

The special makeup of the group was a deliberate effort to concentrate bright people together so they could feed off each other's imaginations and come up with new and better ways to deceive the enemy. Deception was their way of life. Pretending they were someone else was always their foremost activity. Sometimes this required individuals to play particular roles, but usually the unit passed itself off as some other outfit. Customarily this called for front-line presence, so they were as battle scarred as the troops they impersonated. Their special "artistic" makeup, and their front-line experience, combined to make their battalion the most unusual "deception" unit in military history to that time. The story of the Ghost Army remained under the cloak of government secrecy until about two decades ago. Watergate so alarmed Americans that the Freedom of Information Act, of little effect until then, was greatly strengthened and allowed determined parties to search records previously guarded against prying eyes. Engrossing tales about wartime activities slowly began to emerge from the vast storehouses of government records.

Still, almost nothing has been written about the Ghost Army. The Smithsonian of April, 1985, carried an article by Edward Parks, "A phantom division played a role in Germany's defeat," but it just hints at the full scope of the unit's history. That story remains buried in government depositories. Unfortunately, some of Laynor's personal war records have been lost, so his paintings must give sole testimony to his own experiences. Hopefully, some young scholars will take up this search and interview the Ghost Army's rapidly depleting rank of survivors. The unprecedented role of the Ghost Army joined in a deliberate fashion two age-old phenomena, artists in warfare and deception in warfare. A thorough search in English-language literature reveals that these topics have not been blended together in monographic studies. There just is no corpus of works dealing with the topic. That leaves only primary materials and incidental passages in secondary works. Fortunately, the Arizona State University Hayden Library has enough of those vital records to support the story told in the following essay.

This exhibit offers an opportunity to explore many aspects of war and culture. There is art itself, of course, and Laynor's sketches, watercolors, oils and acrylics portray the messy and gritty little details of army life. They reveal to viewers the range of feelings experienced by soldiers, from bravery to fear, from joy to despair, from energy to exhaustion, etc.

Viewers will see a wide variety in his style. Was that an aspect of the uncertainties of life in the "trenches?" His work is sometimes reminiscent of Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe," and at other times impressionistic and abstract. But keep in mind the artist's work is only the first step in the process of art; the viewer's reaction is the equally important concluding step. An observer, of course, will judge the artist's technical competence. That being acceptable, the viewer should endeavor to get into the artist's mind, and applying one's own subjective feelings to the "art" of viewing can only do that. The viewer's aesthetic experience is highly personal, and emotional as well as intellectual. Once made with a work of art, and then, voila, "a shock of recognition" occurs. So, art, by definition is interactive. Participate! The whole endeavor ought to be pleasurable as well as informative. This essay is in an early stage. It will grow as I am able to examine more intimate sources. I hope it may be profitably read in its present form before, during or after viewing the exhibit. A field quite so virgin has no orthodoxy, no clearly marked paths, so be your own guide as you travel through this dimly lit domain of artists and deception and warfare. Historians are like fireflies. We carry our illumination devices on our rear ends, so we see better in retrospect than in prospect. We may not know where we're going, but we think we know something about where we've been. Let me test that notion by looking back into history and see if I can shine some retrospective light for you in the following essay on the strange odyssey of the Ghost Army.

William W. Phillips
Pinetop, Arizona
May 20, 1996


Warfare and art inflame human passions. They combined in World War II to produce one of history's most unusual combat units, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known quite privately by its members as "The Ghost Army."

Historical understanding always requires perspective, so, to get The Ghost Army in focus, it is necessary to examine how warfare, art and deception have intertwined in the past. The past is always prologue, and must be carefully studied before subsequent events can be understood. Warfare is almost as old as man himself, far older than history. There are fifteen thousand-year old archaeological relics such as walled communities and busted skulls that clearly indicate war was waged that long ago. Cave art depicting war may be up to thirty-five thousand years old. That still leaves no record for the million or so years that man has been cavorting around with his present physiological makeup. Some variety of war probably took place during most of that period.

Warfare has shaped the broad outlines of history. Empires were founded on conquest: Sumeria, Macedonia, Rome, Charlemagne, Great Britain, Napoleon, etc. National borders have depended more upon war than upon nationality; look at the mess in old Yugoslavia. War established American independence and ended slavery in the United States. Hitler tried to establish a thousand year Reich by military might, and the Soviets threatened nuclear disaster in their drive to communize the world. Most present day values held dear by civilization were established or preserved by combat. The liberties that Americans presently treasure were saved by victory in WWII. Wars, in fact, have defined most nations and peoples.

Sumerians developed writing about 3100 BC; with it came the beginning of record keeping and of formal history. From that time to the present warfare has been a constant. Throughout history, man has judged that war's benefits outweighed its cost, so almost every generation everywhere that civilization took root has experienced the death and destruction of war. Every argument that war is evil has been countered with positive claims. History has honored war's participants and their goals. There are museums all over the world dedicated to wars and weapons. War memorials and cemeteries have become sacred ground. Religions throughout time have exalted sacrifice, an idea that was easily blended into rationalizations for killing and dying in combat. Indeed, falling in battle guaranteed salvation in many religious systems.

Artists have portrayed warriors as honorable and dignified, as the best that the human race produces. Sargon II's siege of Khorsabal (about 720 BC) is heroically depicted in statuary, and rock carvings from 400 BC in Asia Minor show massed infantry in gallant pose. Ancient vases and sarcophagi are emblazoned with battle scenes. Mosaics, tapestries, illustrated manuscripts and oils carrying pictures of men in war came in medieval times. The artists who produced these works were generally engaged and treated munificently by rulers or wealthy patrons. Alexander The Great, for example, bestowed abundant favors upon artists who honored his splendid military conquests. The works of these "commissioned" artists have been largely commemorative, but sometimes the "accidental" artist, without commission, has almost touched infinity in reaching for the human soul. See, for example, Goya's Disasters of War and Picasso's Guernica. One "feels" as well as "sees" such work. Viewers of Laynor's WWII art should endeavor both to feel and see his works.

What made war seem worthwhile these past five thousand years? Motives have been varied, but the ones that repeat over and over are: empire building, devotion to ideas and leaders, spoils, and notions of superiority. Generally, as societies have grown in numbers and knowledge, the weapons of war have become more deadly, and this, too, has its devastation.

This in turn sponsored anti-war feelings, which many in this century embrace deeply. But these are rather recent developments; "peace" movements did not really get a firm hold until Hugo Grotius, a Dutch humanist of the early seventeenth century, published his famous treatise, On the Law of War and Peace. Unfortunately, peace became something that was pursued ardently only during peacetime; during wartime it became the future condition that the victors would fasten upon the vanquished. Thus far its advocates have shown no revolutionary results. WWII brought death to about fifty million people; approximately the same number have died in war since 1945. Do these figures speak of any real progress towards lasting peace? Maybe so, at least the major powers have restrained themselves in the last fifty years. And, unlike the League of Nations, the United Nations has survived all challenges to date. Could it be that General William Tecumseh Sherman's words near the end of his life are taking ho1d?

"I am tired and sick of war, its glory is all, moonshine . . . war is hell."

Look carefully again at Laynor's works. Are they more suggestive of hell, or of glory? Do they make a statement for war, or for peace?

Beyond the fact of war itself is the matter of how certain aspects of it are prosecuted. These must be surveyed to establish the Ghost Army's place in history.

From time immemorial, warriors have endeavored to deceive each other. At first the deception consisted of innovative strategic and tactical maneuvers that were designed to outwit and overwhelm foes. Hannibal's crossing the Alps and then duping Rome's legions with brilliant maneuvers both stand as some of history's foremost military deceptions. Of equal rank is the pretended retreat of the Norman cavalry during the Battle of Hastings. Ancients used plaster dummies, the Chinese even articulated them, to deceive or frighten enemies. Infiltration of fortresses (Designed by architects, the invisible war artists!) almost became an art form as it called forth the most imaginative deceptions. Every school child knows about the Trojan Horse, but scores of other devices were also employed to "sneak" into fortified places, or to employ new ways of attack from without. Imagine the terror when defenders first faced siege towers and weapons that propelled huge rocks.

As the centuries passed, ever more inventive means of trickery were devised. The Indians of North America refined their clever guerrilla strategies with real and fake smoke signals, and radio provided the same opportunity in the wars of this century. Generally, every technological advance brought with it new ways to deceive enemies.

The notion of spying is one of the oldest deceptions. Spies have been used it seems forever. During the American Civil War some of the most effective spies were actors who had permits to pass between North and South as traveling companies went on national tour. Making war in general, and spying in particular, has largely been the domain of men. However, throughout history, some of the most successful and notorious spies have been women. Too, starting primarily in the nineteenth century, women begin to appear in small numbers as war artists, usually away from the field of battle.

Use of secret codes has been around as long as spying. Artists were sometimes the devisers of codes or other secret ways to convey messages. Spies, of course, also tried to bust codes. Just as finding out the enemy's secrets was important, so was providing false information to the enemy. This was done in thousands of ways, many of which involved artists, such as posters falsely indicating that a particular unit was off on a three-day pass, or one welcoming a non-existent unit, etc. This sort of manipulation of reality is called "disinformation." Benjamin Franklin used it in the Revolutionary War when he planted a phony news item that was aimed at American loyalists, telling about how Indians, under direction from the British, scalped fetuses they pulled from the wombs of American women. Whole cloth! As noted earlier, war has been accepted through the centuries because people have embraced the idea that its benefits outweigh its costs. In part this is true because many desirable social conditions are undeniably the result of war, such as American independence. It is true, too, that war brings people together in a more profound way than almost any other human activity, allowing, nay, demanding them to express a "oneness," an "us against them" mentality that serves to define who they are and what they stand for.

War has been accepted, too, because it has been expertly popularized and glorified. Its victors have been honored as heroes. Kings and commanders from ancient times, well pleased with their own worthiness, commissioned artists to do gallant paintings and statues. These were almost always executed after the war, and showed their subjects in courageous and magnificent poses. Breasts were bedecked with medals, and reproduced in art. Great cities around the world are display cases for statues of men in war. Mounted generals seem to be an American favorite. Museums house the work of unnumbered artists who have depicted war scenes. The blend is sort of elevated to the higher reaches of the mind when authors write of the "art" of war, and there are hundreds of books that play upon that title, commencing notably and suitably with The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a fourth century BC philosopher.

Kings and commanders quickly went beyond using artists just in a romantic manner after the battle and came to realize that artists also could play a role during the battle. With paintings and posters they could build esprit de corps and spread propaganda. Attached to combat units they could raise morale, help elevate the fighting spirit.

By the 19th century this modern role was universally recognized. And then a new dimension was created when the Englishman, Roger Fenton, began the documentary tradition with his startling photographs of the Crimean War. Soon thereafter, Matthew Brady and others produced thousands of remarkable photographs of the American Civil War. A new field of art was born out of the crucible of war. For the first time, people back home were presented current depictions of war. Previously, the artists' renditions, after the fact, tended to be romantic and show the glorious and heroic aspects of warfare. Look over the art of war before the last century and one will not find much gore or suffering; instead, one finds the stuff that makes young hearts beat patriotically and long for the opportunity to shine in battle. Realism comes with modern warfare, though, and artists generally, not only photographers, now depict gore as much as romance.

Independent America's first century of warfare also provided an inviting series of venues for the graphic arts. This field had first blossomed in America with Benjamin Franklin's innovative use of woodcut engravings to illustrate news stories. It prospered later with the invention of lithography and telegraphy and the development and installation of first-rank, continuous-feed printing presses.

According to Clarence P. Hornung and Fridolf Johnson, the authors of 200 Years of American Graphic Art, the graphic arts in America "have alternately reached high levels of excellence and descended to deep troughs of tastelessness." During those periods of distinction, the graphics were exuberant and optimistic, portraying America as the finest product of human endeavor. Handbills and broadsides drummed up opposition to the British on the eve of the Revolutionary War, and Paul Revere's copper engraving of the Boston Massacre was the most famous print of the whole era. During the War of 1812, when many Americans did not have strong "us-against-them" feelings, poster art attained one of its highs and helped hold enough Americans together to frustrate Great Britain's design to reclaim its colonies and change the Atlantic Ocean back into King George's Lake. But the art then descended into a trough, only to reemerge during the Civil War with some of its finest work ever. Harper's Weekly led the way with front-page woodcuts glorifying the Union cause. These had the happy, unanticipated effect of driving advertising off the front and cover pages of newspapers and magazines. Thomas Nast emerged at this time as America's foremost cartoonist, and young Winslow Homer became "America's Artist" with his glorious array of sensitive sketches, woodcuts and oils.

Warfare reaches into the most secret places of the human mind, places where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct dwells. These are the same places that art reaches, so it was only to be expected that warfare and art would blend harmoniously. Sun Tzu held that war and life are guided by the same laws and principles; the "stuff" of war and life are the same, he affirmed. The notion has been reaffirmed frequently through the centuries since, with von Clausewitz in the early eighteen hundreds making perhaps its most acclaimed modern formulation. Those who deal with art and war treat them not as isolated happenings, but as aspects of man's total universe. They simultaneously occupy the same ground. Because of this historic commingling, it is difficult to understand how survey accounts in both fields have almost completely ignored the other. Through the centuries artists have depicted war scenes; but historians of art rarely mention war. The reverse is equally true, as one must search carefully through histories of war for any recognition of art, even in those works that are richly illustrated with paintings and photographs.

One of the places art and warfare meet is in that part of the mind where myths reside. War has always given rise to myths. For example: that Cossacks were born to freedom; that Indians were savages, later revised to noble savages; that God favored conquerors; that the crusades were commissioned by God; that the American "boy" was the world's finest soldier; etc. All of these, and uncounted other myths born of war, have been immortalized by artists.

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